Embracing Ruin

DSC_0258Rome takes some getting used to.  It is not the city you expect it to be; though it is never less.  Although Rome is the mother of all metropoli—both madonna and hag—it bears little resemblance to other modern cities like New York, with its street grid, skyscrapers, and Central Park.  Or to other European cities—Paris and London—that selectively showcase the remnants of their ancient pasts, with reverence and elegance, perhaps more elegantly than reverently, but always it is a past framed by a self-conscious modernity. Consider London’s Tower: a medieval jewel box. Literally: its main attraction are the crown jewels.  Of London, John Murray (who published Melville’s guide to Rome) wrote:  “If Rome had undergone as many alterations as London has witnessed within the lapse of a few centuries, we should not find one stone standing upon another which we could identify with her historic times” (271). Murray’s complaint is that in such  cities the sweep of modernism is to clean up the messy ruins of their past. They do not build on top of their ruins, or let them sit; they level them to the ground, cart away the refuse, build anew, and forget.  Rome not so much.

Rome is different.  Rome lets its ruins sit and, in many cases become more ruinous.  Such is the case with a fountain I found on the Pincian hill.  It is so encrusted with lime deposits from the centuries drip of calcite-rich water that stalactites and stalagmites have made the central pedestal almost invisible.  Vegetation now grows from the upper bowl; birds no doubt nest there.  Initially, you don’t realize it is a fountain.  It has been transformed into something else, something odd, different, new.

Rome has been in ruins since it was sacked in the seventh century and seems singularly unfazed by that fact.  There sits the Roman Forum: framed at one end by triumphal arches, and by the remnant of a towering, curved, now vacant niche fit for a monumental statue at the other end, with a sunken field in between, littered with fallen broken columns, some labeled, most not.  And across Via dei Fori Imperiali (a wide busy modern roadway constructed in the late 19th century) is Trajan’s Forum with its magnificent column and its ribbon of unreadable history spiraling up it.  Buses, taxis, and cars streak up and down this strada that slices through the city’s ancient ground, stopping reluctantly for pedestrians, but stopping nonetheless; they ignore the ruin on either shoulder, wait patiently as tourists cross against the light, and move on.  Rome is inured to its ruin.

Rome is different, but the indifferent traffic is not quite the reason; I’ll try again, from Melville’s angle.  In Melville’s day, Rome had none of these incongruous modern roads we see today: no Via dei Fori Imperiali, and none of the wide avenues like Via Nazionale, Corso del Vittorio Emmanuele II, and Lungotevere along the river.  Nor had any of its more muscular piazzas like the rebuilt Piazza Venezia or the invented Piazza della Repubblica been created.  For Melville in 1857, the city had long outlasted earlier attempts by Renaissance Popes to renovate piazzas, churches, roads, and acqueducts.  Its ruins prevailed, and for all intents and purposes, Melville’s Rome of 1857 was just as ruinous, and vacant, as it had been for twelve centuries before he arrived.     Ruin seemed integrated into the fabric of the city and its life.  And this integration of ruin is what I mean to convey.


Look at the Imperial Wall.  Erected in the third century, it still stands in many parts of the city.  It is wide, tall, impenetrable, thick.  The gates—Porta San Sebastiano, Porta San Paolo, Porta San Giovanni (pictured here), Porta Pia, Porta Flaminio, just to name those that Melville witnessed—magnificently break up the wall’s otherwise oppressive expanse and draw our attention, too, because they are accompanied by imposing bustling piazzas.  The rest of the wall passes through the city, a massive, sullen, reclining, windowDSC_0844less edifice, ignorant of traffic on either side, unless a cut-through has been managed through some civic venture in order to permit this street or that to flow through it. The once bustling Porta Maggiore (left) originally adapted itself to the acqueduct streaming along its shoulders.  Now it is a little archaeological park you can wander through checking out wildflowers.DSC_0851

Often nearby streets, as in the University’s student district called San Lorenzo, seem to dead-end at the wall, though at the last second a side-street takes you along the wall and back to where you were, some blocks away.  Walls are meant to stop you and make you think, or curse.  In other cases, though, sections of Rome’s walls are incorporated into everyday life:  an overlook in the Villa Borghese or part of the buttress of a building, and between San Lorenzo and Termini station, you can see a precarious arch that seems to hang in mid-air as traffic passes around it. No one gives much thought as to whether a ruin is useful or not; maybe it can be, maybe not; it’s just there.DSC_0039

Originally, the wall encircled not only the town but also vast open fields and pastures, with farmhouses, churches, and monuments punctuating the empty grassy hills, so that a farmer might be scything away or picking fruit, or a shepherd might be tending his flock, incongruously, next to the Wall. Most of these open fields were still evident when Melville visited Rome.  The ancient wall encompassed rural and urban lives. As he walked within or just outside the city walls, Melville could see peasants chewing straw while urging cattle to drink from a centuries old fountain in fields and pastures, just as tourists today can see nonchalant ragazzi smoking while leaning against the Colosseum. And, despite all of Rome’s apparent could-not-care-lessness about its ruins, it makes those stolid ruins seem sociable, makes them inseparable from the living. Rome embraces ruination and wears its ruins well.


It takes time before you can lose your tourist self and adopt the Roman embrace of ruin, and once you make the shift, you also achieve a double self.  There is the inurement to one’s ruins, which is a kind of disregard of the ruins that is actually essential for the embrace, for you must come to terms with your aging, see the function of decay, give it a nod, and turn aside.  Ruin, like Rome’s wall, is always in the corner of your eye, like a friend.  And this is one self you come to know.  But there is a second self.  Rome requires of you certain unexpected awakenings—my God, I am in Rome!—that also come when you see a part of the ancient city you had passed by countless times and suddenly now see straight on for the first time: Ah, so that is the Baths of Diocletian standing across from the Ministry of Finance, and across from Termini, which, who knew? takes its name not from “terminus” but from Terme, meaning baths.  And who knew the Baths also conceal the most magnificent of Michelangelo churches in town, Santa Maria degli Angeli?

photo 2(5)Finding something new, layered, buried within the ruin awakens us to a past we thought we knew but never did.  Rome awakens you to selves you thought you had but did not.  You cannot stop seeing old Rome as being something astonishingly new.  These ruins make me new again.


Melvillesco: Travel and Bellezza

Melville’s first day in Rome seemed simple enough: he arrived, visited two sites, and went to bed. But in tracking that day and writing it up, I found myself taking far more time than I had imagined, and ended up writing two postings for that one day.  Apparently, living life through someone else is not as efficient a way of getting through a day as you might think. Better to live your own life.

We are always told, in America at any rate, that “imitation is suicide” (thank you, Emerson) and that true “manhood” (I think today Emerson would say “personhood”) means living in such a way so that you may find our “aboriginal self.”  I say “our” because for Emerson this “Self”—this “essential man” (there he goes again)—is the shared substratum of a universalized identity.  This “oversoul” is not “above” us; it is deeply embedded. Transcendence is not rising up; it is going inward to where all humanity is. Very Platonic. This “aboriginal” Self, so says Emerson, is the thing we must rely upon and trust.  If we can only find it.  Finding this Self means peeling away the social life that distracts and confines you.  Better, then, to live “essentially,” without society. And to do this, you do not need to travel; you do not need Rome or Naples, Emerson said. Just stay put and stay within in order to focus your energy on finding this Self. A very appealing anti-materialism for a materialist democracy.

Emerson and I may not see eye to eye on all these matters of self and life and travel and imitation.  I am imitating Melville’s itinerary in Rome in order to write something that passes for a biography, and I can only do this through a form of research that involves reading Melville’s words and devising ways of placing myself, self-consciously, in the critical role of re-enacting certain moments of Melville’s creativity.  So if he travels, I travel, too.  But travel was also his way of getting away from family, which he loved and needed and wanted, but which distracted from his own desire to grasp at the Essential, or what he and Emerson would have called “Beauty,” and Melville’s search for beauty seems to have culminated in Rome. But Melville took transcendentalism and platonism as desire rather than reality, and  what exactly Melville meant by beauty is not entirely clear.  It is what I hope to discover. Perhaps, too, my re-enactment of Melville’s itinerary is my way of finding something essential in me, though I also find it hard to see beauty as an essence, or if it is an essence, hard to grasp in me.

Passeggio e Viaggio

DSC_0223Last week marked only our third week in Rome. Because we have just embarked on a five-month stay, we know that we still have plenty of what is often referred to as “time” ahead of us.  We immediately panicked.  Tempus was fugiting all around us, almost a month was gone, twenty percent of our Roman journey would be done in a week.  Ars may be longa, and Rome eternal, but vita breva, baby, so let’s get on the road.

I had taught my first class—a PhD seminar on the American Renaissance—and the anxiety of meeting new students and getting a feel for who they are, where they are, what they need, and how we all would mesh—I an American; they Italian (but also Spanish, Russian, Iranian, Argentine, and Chinese)—all that anticipatory anxiety had evaporated. The following evening we spent at the opera, two rows from the orchestra pit, awash in Muti’s orchestration, Anna Netrebko’s warm soprano, and the low tenor of Yusif Eyvazov, a brilliant young voice from Azerbaijan. But the following morning, the only music we heard was the rattling of our one suitcase as it rolled unsteadily over cobblestones to make a bus to Termini—Rome’s sweeping, monumental train station—and then the whir and whoosh of the high speed Frecciarossa to Firenze.  A few days later, we were on a slower train to Siena, and then an even slower train back to Rome.

So in a furious long weekend—from Friday to Tuesday—we were tourists, and the experience is something both Ginny and I will no doubt recount in further separate but intertwined postings to come. We had been in Florence decades and decades ago—not long after that unpleasantness with Savonarola—with Emma (then one or so) on my back—and today I have only vague recollections of visiting the endless halls of the Uffizi, but that is about it.  So I was eager to return to Florence for a fuller engagement. I don’t recall there being back then in 1978 quite the mobs of tourists already assembling on this weekend in early March 2014. Granted, the crowds were mostly Italian school groups, or other Italians touring Italy, plenty from Asia (China, Japan, Korea), and only the occasional bewildered American or Brit.  We had a room “with a view,” as the Soggiorno Battistero B&B put it in their ad, and their ad was not false: our third story windows looked directly onto Florence’s multicolored Duomo and Baptistry.  We could watch the tides of visitors wash over the square, pause, look up, pose, click, and move on.

Each night after our day of relentless touring—Uffizi, Palazzo Vecchio, the Accademia, the Medici Chapels, Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, a bracing exhibit of books from Boccaccio’s library, with his inscriptions, and more—we rested by taking a leisurely stroll around 6 or 7 pm, which is the time of day that Italians take their traditional passeggio or passeggiata.

My recollection again goes back decades and decades ago when we spent a year in Genova, and lived in a garden apartment in a small coastal town called Nervi just east of Genova.  And by “coastal town” I mean to say, without guilt or embarrassment, that we were living on the Italian Riviera.  Less than a block from our apartment in Nervi, and through the sottopassagio that takes you under the train tracks, we would arrive on a spring or summer and even fall or winter day onto Nervi’s passagiata, the town’s walk-way along the rocks and tiny beaches of the Mediterranean.  We would stroll along with Emma in her stroller, sit and watch the sun set, or look further to the east past the fishing village of Camoglie to the looming peninsular Portofino mountain jutting into the sea.  It was pure hell.

Passing us or approaching us would be tight joyous intense knots of Italian raggazi and raggaze, more cautious Italian families with their bambini, either held in arms, or guided along off a finger, or in strollers, and elderly couples bundled up against the occasional breeze even on the hottest days: they well-dressed regardless of economic status; we looking like Americans. We passing people would greet each other with buona sera and stroll along. I have the fondest memories of passegio.

Return with me, if you will, to Florence, March 8, 2014, a Saturday at 6pm, along the Via Calimala that takes you from Piazza della Repubblica to the Ponte Vecchio. These end points are only two of the many hang-outs for Italians and tourists alike, and the strada that connects them is so filled with humanity that the occasional taxi must simply take its time trying to head down the roadway.  All of Florence is a pedestrian mall, it seems; and has been since before Savonarola. That night, Florence was taking its passegio with a vengence.

DSC_0148As we walked, sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes in the street; sometimes one in front the other, other times arm in arm, phalanxes of teens wove effortlessly beside us and each other, advancing side by side, some falling back, each heading relentlessly forward until suddenly pausing, lighting up, yelling out a witticism or banality, laughing, catching up, making no eye contact either with those they love or simply bump into, full of life, utterly oblivious of a past or future: they move in step with the exhilaration of their momentary bonding. Without a buona sera or a mi scusi, they seem racing one way or another, toward the carnival of the Piazza with its carousel and vendors, or to the shimmering lights along the Arno, which bring them, for a brief instant to a moment of silence and longing.

I know these raggazi who have left us in their dust.  They are my clients, my children, my students: I am blessed that I love this form of humanity, because so many in my profession disdain their ignorance, narcissism, arrogance, and seeming disregard. Their hair is tufted and shaven on the sides, their piercings and tattoos carefully placed, their presence is imposing, adult, muscular, and curved: so much beauty and self loathing. But their skin has a translucence that betrays an underlying layer of baby fat.  So I love them: I know their fear, respect their drive to escape self-knowledge, and admire their eventual emergence into a deeper awareness of darkness within light. Somehow, despite their utter obliviousness regarding my presence, I wait and watch them because they seem the epitome of humanity becoming humanity.

DSC_0143Occasionally, we saw an elderly man or woman, separately walking, eying the crowd and store fronts, or an older couple, such as ourselves, walking together, watching their step, lingering beside a gelateria that displays their flavors in peaks, like a range of Alps. But each of us pensioners were like dislocated shells tumbling along with the waves of raggazi heading this way or that, striding not strolling, care less of others.

I could see Buster Keaton doing this scene very well: exiting his house on a quiet vicolo, adjusting his hat and vest primly, taking his girl in his arm, and walking down the side street, the two merge onto Via Calimalo in anticipation of a pleasant, lovey stroll and are swept into a river of people that swirls Buster around in bewilderment, hat and girl flying off in undisclosed directions.  He catches his hat, is bumped again by this striding pedestrian and that, swirls again as he tries to keep pace, grabs for his girl’s hand, only to find a scowling man in a bowler.  Cut to lonely bedroom.DSC_0144

I refuse to make generalizations about today’s frantic passegio as compared to what I experienced or remember experiencing decades and decades ago.  And I refuse to condemn a generation of young Florentines for failing, in their justified panic over the flight of time, to slow down, to say good evening, to acknowledge the life around them instead of the panic within. But I worry, too, about the passing of passegio.

Siena was different perhaps only because its crowds are smaller.  Even so, the pace along Via Banchi di Sopra, which bends back along Siena’s hill becoming Via Banchi di Sotto, the city’s two main streets, seems slower. People actually saunter.  A well-dressed gentleman smokes his blunt Italian cigar; an elderly woman escorts her ancient mother, in matching scarves; and of course raggazi, raggaze, raggazi.  The city’s proudest gelateria, named Grom, has a glassed in area with banquets allowing you to sit, enjoy a coppetta with invert plastic spoon, and watch the procession. Out on the street, we managed a buona sera and got a response.  It seemed closer to what I want passegio to be, and to what I wish Italians would always be in retaining this tradition, whose ideal of movement and community is so inexplicably dear to me.

Back on the train out of Siena, heading to Rome.  Our car is one of those older types with a long windowed corridor and 8 or so compartments seating six people, three facing three.  The train is crowded with high-schoolers at one end and their teachers at a compartment at the other end.  Occasionally, when the ruckus reaches the level of riot, a teacher strides down the corridor, making the familiar fingertips touching thumb tip gesture saying “Daniele, ma cosa fai?!” and the noise subsides, temporarily.  Our compartment is all adults; we have reservations for the window seats.  As we pull out of Siena station, the train winds through hilly farm land, sheep in pastures, bare orchards waiting for spring buds.  Occasionally, I see a hawthorne’s white blossom flash by, then the rarer cherry pink, and down in the brush a pheasant is flushed out by the train’s clatter.  Then higher hills are sectioned off with vineyards, also bare.  We stop at the delicious station called Montepulciano. We come next to hill towns; first in the distance, they look like trees on top of slopes, but they are peopled.  Closer and overlooking us and a river is Orvieto, which seems like a collage of cubes piled upon each other; a painting by Corot.  I want to return there soon.  But once or twice on this voyage, I see a bush with big bright red blossoms, which flashes by so fast I cannot alert Ginny in time to see them.  I do not recognize this flower; maybe it is some kind of hibiscus, though brighter than any I have seen.  I cannot name it, but will: rose of passing.

You think it would be fun to run a blog?


The title for my first blog entry, ever, is a riff on one of my favorite lines from Citizen Kane: “You think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” In the film, young Charles Foster Kane, who is now just old enough to spend his millions the way he wants to, buys a failing newspaper on a lark because it suits his whim and he thinks it would be “fun.”  His legal guardian Walter Thatcher, now powerless to prevent this foolishness and nearing cardiac arrest, exclaims, “You think it would be FUN to run a newspaper?” as if fun could ever be more important than sensible business and making profits.

I like this line because I also think it would be fun to run a newspaper but sympathize with Walter Thatcher’s astonishment and scorn for anyone taking on the role of editor on mere whim. In fact, after 25 years, I’ve just recently stepped down from the editorship of the Melville Society where my primary duty was running a newspaper, of sorts: a scholarly journal called Leviathan. It’s hard work editing a journal; it makes no profit, or very little, but it is rewarding work, with its own kind of “fun,” despite the relentless deadlines three and four times each year for 25 years.

Now I am no longer running a journal but preparing to leave for a five-month stay in Rome with my spouse, Ginny Blanford. I will be teaching Melville and the American Renaissance at the University of Rome, Sapienza, and for my research project, I will be using Melville’s journal to track his daily itinerary when he visited Rome in Feb/March of 1857. Sad, I know; it’s probably not the way one should tour the city, following someone else’s footsteps; I really must get a life.  (Ginny is a writer, also a retired editor, and my best friend; I’ll let her introduce herself in her blog, which you can access by clicking the link in the sidebar.  Our idea is to blog independently but linked.)

Anyway, Ginny and I think it would be “fun” to run a blog, or rather side by side blogs, offering a daily record of our different experiences and impressions in the Eternal City from our different perspectives. What we hope to achieve is one site that contains our two blogs, sharing equal space, run side by side.  But apparently, that is easier said than done, and suddenly, I’m worrying that so much writing might keep me from seeing more of Rome.  And I am thinking that having to make daily blog entries might become an obligation, with more relentless deadlines.  And what if I begin to say more about myself than I should rather than report on my class in Rome and new students or my view of the city in each entry, or thoughts about Melville.  How shall I keep from spilling secrets?  Now I can hear the Thatcher in me rising up: you think THIS would be FUN?  But some Kane in me thinks it might indeed be fun to run a blog.